The importance of cultural competence in dealing with post-war societies – the Western Balkans case

A low level or complete absence of cultural competence may not only inhibit conflict resolution, but may also serve to halt overall regional cooperation, group interaction and relations with international actors.

By Jelena Petrović and Hristiana Grozdanova

“Cultural awareness” is a buzz-phrase nowadays. It is widely accepted as a desired asset for actors ranging from business to military ones. However, cultural awareness is a rather narrow concept that encompasses only acknowledgement of the culture of others. Cultural competence, on the other hand, is a concept of a more complex disposition, as it requires active participation of the person/group communicating with one of a different culture. Competence assumes an effective interaction based on respect and acceptance – thought not necessarily approval – of cultural similarities and differences, not only among colliding groups but also between international actor and groups in question. Analysing the Western Balkans conflict and post-conflict cultural identity-building, and the involvement of international actors such as NATO or/and the EU, we argue that the absence or a low level of cultural competence may not only disable conflict resolution but also serve to halt overall regional cooperation, group interaction and relations with international actors. Moreover, we emphasize that cultural competence in conflicted or post-conflicted environments requires a comprehensive, balanced handling of the cultural specificities of the warring groups. Whilst the territories of the former Yugoslavia have been, and still are, home to a variety of ethnic and cultural groups, we will limit our observations to the largest ones, acknowledging – yet not specifically addressing – the important role of religion as an element of a culture in identity-building processes of conflicted groups in the Western Balkans.

From “free” diversity to “forced” unity

Cultural competence is of crucial importance in the mutual understanding of different societies. People see, accept and interpret things and situations differently. What is appropriate behaviour in one culture might not be appropriate in another other. One of the most common misinterpretations is that countries sharing one or similar languages have the same cultural identities.

The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was composed of six socialist republics – Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia, together with two autonomous provinces of Vojvodina and Kosovo. They all shared a rich and diverse cultural heritage due to the Roman, Byzantium, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian presence in their respective lands. Although speaking more or less the same language (with the exception of Albanian communities whose language is of different origin and thus, vastly different in comparison to languages of other ethnic groups in the region), the cultural identities of the ethnic groups were not shaped in the same manner under these different influences and traditions.

Closer observation of historical developments in the Western Balkans shows that the role of culture served as a tool for identity-building. Unfortunately, it was also often misused for political purposes and nationalistic propaganda. With different ethical and religious groups often overlapping, the pressure of imposing cultural values that did not share common ground ranks from slow to intense. Ultimately, the role of the culture as a uniting forces was weak and insufficient to prevent the bloody ethnic wars in Southeast Europe that took place in the nineties.

After decades of “brotherhood and unity” and following the collapse of the transcendent Yugoslav identity, ethnic groups have found themselves in a search of a renewed identity. Each ethnic group involved in the wars sought to justify its own existence and to redefine its territory. The destruction of cultural heritage was used as a tool of ethnic cleaning. Following the processes of re-evaluation of national identities, culture and religion became a catalyst for the mobilisation of different cultural groups.

The international community’s cultural “missteps”

In the post-Cold War era and following the fall of the Iron Curtain, international organisations such as NATO and the EU needed to find new mission statements – promoting globalisation, democratisation and free market economics. Democratisation alone has provided an ideal opportunity for NATO and the EU to reconstitute their legitimacy.

Their intensive attempt to reverse the effects of war on the territory of the former Yugoslavia was only partially successful. Both direct and indirect presence in the former Yugoslavia resonated with NATO and EU cultural policy, and the level of involvement gradually escalated from low (Slovenia) to medium (Croatia) to high (Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia/Montenegro). Upon engagement, they have faced the living dream of nineteenth-century nationalism; that of a common language, history and habits of everyday life, justifying the formation of distinct nation states that would represent ethnically-homogeneous group. The intruded idea of the “land of the Slavs” was not built upon a firm foundation, as it neglected differences to favour similarities and was, thus, doomed to failure. Moreover, the suppression of cultural differences brought about the opposite result – cultural separation and intolerance. On the international level, this was mostly seen as an attempt of the former Yugoslav states to prove that they differ from one another and cherish a different cultural heritage and, as such, was supported. The striking difference between Yugoslav and ethnic approaches to building cultural identity has caused a cognitive dissonance among the population that adjusted by embracing a primordial, ethnic identity, (re)building it around differences this time and in reference to the other, the foe.

Not long after the last conflict ended, NATO and the EU have made a full circle with the former Western Balkans adversaries by offering them a perspective of future memberships. With both actors sharing a set of values, it was necessary not only to promote them but also to stimulate freshly independent countries to comply with NATO/EU conditionality and to cooperate with each other. One of the ways to do so was by refocusing the cultural identity-building approach to a new-old one of seeking similarities not only between the former foes, but also with the inter/supranational actor. In search of shortcuts, cultural competence was replaced with a cultural arrogance that assumed almost an grateful response from major cultural groups, failing to apply a holistic approach that would carefully tackle differences while promoting similarities. Instead of the patient correction of undesired cultural features – balanced with the subtle, inoffensive emphasis on more favourable values, traditions and practices – already war-traumatized cultural groups were pressured to deal with “flaws” immediately, while at the same time being constantly reminded of their short-comings in adopting promoted cultural features. With many grievances still fresh and most of the claims unsatisfied, this new switch came too soon, too hard, too complex and blissfully unaware of possible consequences.

Traumatized populations faced a constant, and not always subtle, nudging to re-seek the similarities; something that was painfully experienced as wrong by the very same generation, during the dissolution of their communist federation. Furthermore, the organizations applying this approach were those same ones that supported its opposite merely a decade before. This has contributed to the occurrence of another cognitive dissonance in a relatively short period. Groups now had to deal with an adopted concept of their cultural identity at two different levels: first, the search for similarities among identities based on differences and second level dissonance, a relict of collision between “brotherhood and unity” and aggressive ethnic cuts made in the nineties. Conflicted cognition of group’s own culture, lying in a triangle of Yugoslav and European/Euro-Atlantic ones as higher identities and a national identity built in the nineties, did not necessarily have to be a negative process as it could invoke positive changes, such as adaptation and rationalization. However, as it was combined with culturally insensitive pressure and repetition in a time span of a generation, it has caused, instead, a firmer embrace of the latest cultural identity relying on a difference from “hostile” neighbouring cultures. Thus, the resistance to cooperation with representatives of other cultures was increased, while in most recent hostile areas of the region it pushed the population closer to the fine border between tension and violent outbursts of intolerance.

Lessons to be learned, measures to be taken

As analysed, there are some important lessons to learn from the experience of NATO and the EU with identity-building in the post-conflict countries of the former Yugoslav republic. Those lessons could be applied in other culturally complex and sensitive regions after a careful observation of the historical and cultural developments they harbour:.

  • Cultural awareness is not sufficient for conflict resolution, as resolution requires more then mere acknowledgement of conflicting groups’ cultural specificities. It requires understanding, respect and balanced handling of both cultural similarities and cultural differences;
  • Cultural competence is the only approach that provides international actors with the opportunity to effectively settle a conflict without sowing the seeds of future discord, as it presumes the ability to make a long-term strategic approach that would surpass the risk of circular cultural identity building;
  • Cultural competence approach requires, above all, time for overcoming cognitive dissonance and cultural identity confusion, as well as a willingness to seek for an optimal measure between respecting one’s culture and promoting the desired values;
  • Negative cultural identity building should be discouraged as it adds to the gap between already opposed groups.

The international community has, over the years, been tempted to analyse the Western Balkans case from a number of different perspectives. One of the main shortcomings was a lack of in-depth analysis of the cultural specifics of the former Yugoslav Republic states, which could have facilitated the processes of post-conflict state building and democracy transition. The future role of NATO and the EU in similarly complex regions could be strengthened provided that several steps are taken in better planning of their presence in the countries.

  • First, a full analysis of the historical developments in the region needs to be produced before mapping the next steps. Every region in the world is different and a local expert-team should be used in “translating” the cultural specifics of a transitional country(s);
  • Second, international organisations need to rely more on the local government/civil society to discuss the future perspective of the countries in transition. Joint working groups and tasks forces with shared responsibilities could assist this process and sustain the communication among the different players;
  • Third, the international community should facilitate dialogue among the minorities in one transitional state (region) regardless of their size, making sure that no pressure over the minorities is applied from either local leaders or international actors.
  • Fourth, programmes for boosting international exchange need to be tailored according to the cultural specifics of groups and they should be done in as many different spheres – academics, media, administration, and politics – as possible;
  • Fifth, especially when militarily engaged in a culturally-complex environment, NATO and/or EU should aim for continuous re-engagement of personnel in order to decrease costs of cultural training and increase effectiveness. Early specialization of troops in cultural sensitivity on a regional level (in accordance with present needs, strategic interests and identified emerging risks) may contribute to their cultural competence and thus more effective interaction with the local population once deployed.

Jelena Petrović is a PhD Candidate at the War Studies Department at King’s College London. Hristiana Grozdanova is an EU policy advisor. They are both members of the Young Atlanticist NATO Working Group.


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